Requiem for a Debt Collector

Photo credit: Esparta Palma, CC BY 2.0.

From 2008 until yesterday, I worked at the largest debt collection law firm in New Jersey. Their monthly collections ranged from around $3–4 million a month. Working there had a significant impact upon my life.

At various times in my tenure, I thought I should write something about my experiences. I’m not sure if I ever want to share those in full, because they are very raw. I’ve had years to process what I saw in my time at the firm. My best short summary is this:

While working at a debt collection law firm managed by exactly the kind of lawyers you think of when you close your eyes and think of the word “debt collector” (consumed by desire for money, callous disregard for humanity), where a toxic work environment was deliberately fostered and encouraged, I was at first shocked, then embraced, and later disgusted. At the end, I couldn’t even muster outrage or shock. I was numb to terrible things being done to strangers as well as people I knew.

Working on the phone at a debt collection law firm is to be the first contact people have when they find themselves in an extremely difficult legal situation involving money. I’ve spoken to people in healthy financial situations who have no issue giving up $15,000 in their checking account to resolve an outstanding bill. I’ve listened to men and women break down emotionally after losing their last $500, suddenly without warning. I’ve listened to people tell strangers that they want to commit suicide rather than continue on in their miserable financial situation. I’ve listened to others gloat to me that they’ve prepared themselves for this situation and my firm will have no legal recourse against them.

All of the phone calls, all of the angry letters, all of the nasty words and feelings — all of it gets boiled down to a number. At the end of every call, every day, every month. How much did you get? How do you quantify grief, suffering, annoyance, and trouble? Quite simply actually.

Working at this firm was the first thing I did when I graduated college. I was 23, and I didn’t know much of anything. I just turned 31, and I definitely know a lot about myself, about what I’m capable of doing to others, and what I’m capable of enduring.

I don’t regret taking the job, but I do regret the way that I dealt with things there for a long time. When people I cared about came to me explaining the daily sexual harassment they suffered, I couldn’t offer them anything. I don’t know what I would offer them now, but I wish I could have done something. Emotional abuse was hurled constantly — I wish I hadn’t adapted. I wish I had done something that was good, rather than something that was legal.

There are a lot of people still working at that firm. They have bills to pay and so they keep showing up. Long ago they adapted to the situation around them. Some of them became a part of the system that hurls damage at strangers. Few of them ever think about it.

For a long time I told myself that who I was when I was at work was not the person I really was. At the end, I’m left with the idea that the ends never last, and the means are what you live with.

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